In 1940, back when Ivy League football still mattered in the rankings, undefeated Cornell visited Dartmouth on a damp, bone-chilling late-autumn afternoon.
The Big Red had not lost in three seasons. The Associated Press had ranked them No. 1 in the country all year. En route to their 6-0-0 record, they had crushed Ohio State, Army and Syracuse and outscored their opponents by an average of 30-2.
But underdog Dartmouth, coached by the legendary Red Blaik, played with great determination before its home crowd, keeping the bigger, quicker, more experienced Cornell team on its heels. Early in the fourth quarter, Dartmouth kicked a field goal to break a scoreless tie.
With its title hopes on the line, Cornell drove to the Dartmouth 6-yard line with 45 seconds to play. Three straight runs brought Cornell to the 1-foot line, where they called timeout with nine seconds remaining. The referee, Red Friesell, flagged the Big Red for delay of game and stepped off five yards. On the ensuing play, a Dartmouth defender broke up a pass in the end zone, and the home crowd cheered the amazing upset.
On the field, the officials weren't so sure. Because of the penalty, Friesell was confused whether the previous play had occurred on third or fourth down. The linesman was convinced it had been third down.
So Cornell received the ball for one last play, with three seconds remaining. This time, the last-gasp pass over the middle was good for a touchdown.
After the Big Red kicked the meaningless extra point, the officials ran off the field. Not until they had showered did someone approach Friesell in the locker room to tell him that all the reporters in the press box were positive that Cornell had received an extra down.
"If that's true," Friesell said, "I'll try to reverse the score."
In 1940, of course, there was no television, much less instant replay to consult. To document what really happened on the field, Friesell and the other officials had to wait 24 hours for the game film to be developed. The film clearly showed what the refs had missed.
But under the rules of the Eastern Collegiate Football Association, Friesell was powerless to reverse the score. Once the result had been officially recorded, it stood. Cornell was home free.
Though their team was not at fault, Cornell's staff was uncomfortable with the game's conclusion. That night, Big Red coach Carl Snavely and university president Edmund Day sent a telegram to their counterparts at Dartmouth: "We congratulate you on the victory of your fine team. The Cornell touchdown was scored on a fifth down, and we relinquish claim to the victory and extend congratulations to Dartmouth."
The record books now show the final score as Dartmouth 3, Cornell 0. The gesture of sportsmanship not only cost Cornell the game but its chance at a national championship.
We can't imagine that such a thing would happen todaybecause it wouldn't. And it didn't in 1990, when unbeaten Colorado benefited from a similar fifth-down error on the game's final play to beat Missouriand went on, unlike Cornell, to share the national title.
No one was surprised when Colorado's coach, Bill "Promise Keeper" McCartney, opted not to forfeit to Missouri. What big-time coach would have acted differently?
After all, Colorado didn't cheat. Refs make game-changing mistakes, and refs are part of the game. And the price of such a forfeit in 1990 would have been much higher than in 1940; it would have cost Colorado's program millions in revenue. Apoplectic boosters would have prevented it.
The then-and-now comparison really illuminates how we live in a world that is not just materially different from the world of 1940 but different in mind and spirit, too.
Maybe that's all the more reason to tell this story. We live in an era when sportsmanship is as quaint as hoop skirts and curtsies. In our sports, as in our businesses, the ends justify the meansespecially when the ends can be so irresistibly lucrative. Every week's news seems to bring fresh confirmation that Carl Snavely would be laughed out of town today, or worse, even if he were just a peewee league coach.
I could live with a sportsmanship bar that's lower than where Snavely set it. But things are so bad these days, most of us would be delighted if we could get athletes and coaches just to stop actively cheating.
We've come to expect payoffs and grade "management" from college coaches. That's only news when some program speeds by at 110 mph while everyone else is going 80, or when the details are particularly salacious, as with Colorado's call-girl hookups.
More recently, however, the cheating has extended in directions we have not traditionally expected.
Judging from the news reports recently, I'm starting to wonder if anyone on our Olympic team doesn't use performance-enhancing drugs. Maybe the archery squad or the synchronized swimmers, but I no longer feel safe guessing even there.
Sprinter Tim Montgomery, who was about to be banned by the U.S. Olympic Committee, saved everyone the trouble by failing to qualify on the track. Marion Jones, the darling of our team in 2000, has been hounded by persistent accusations that she used performance-enhancing substances.
Now we hear suggestions that even Lance Armstrong, who's about as All-American as Americans get, is doping. The accusations would be easier to dismiss if they came only from jealous Frenchiesand if banned substances weren't endemic in this sport. But the latest to cast doubt was none other than fellow American cycling champion Greg LeMonde.
Few baseball fans still think that Barry Bonds morphed into a ripped superhuman through weight training and right living. It's hard anymore even to believe that the iconic Sammy "Say It Ain't" Sosa is clean. (How overbulked, by the way, do you have to be to pull a muscle so badly from sneezing that you spend six weeks on the disabled list?)
Talk to enough college football players who are honest about it, and you'll find that steroid use is widespread. Perhaps not surprisingly, it's in our high schools, too.
As the drugs become more sophisticated, they're much harder to detect. They're also more easily available. The biggest restraint on their use now is personal integrity. With the rewards for success so high, integrity isn't a value that our society much reinforces.
It used to be in the Olympics that we knew who the heroes and villains were. The East German women were the bad guys. (And I mean "guys.") The Soviets and their bloc were machines produced by sports factories. Americans were the amateurs, the underdogs, the athletes who won on natural pluck and skill. Now we're the Red Army team and the Testosterone Girls, and the underdogs in Athens will be from places like Angola and Iraq.
It will be much harder for me to watch the Olympics with any excitement this year, knowing what we know. It's getting harder to believe that the baseball record books won't someday contain asterisks to indicate that most of the fantastical hitting achievements of our era were tainted.
And it's harder to believe that Ken Lay and Bernie Ebbers and corporate accounting scandals are isolated examples of golden ends justifying slaggy means. Our athletes are simply polluted products of a poisoned culture.
Carl Snavely and Nashville's Grantland Rice, who wrote that winning is less important than how you play the game, would surely disapprove. Who cares? They're dead.